Crossing the Line

Artist Charles Robinson’s view of the ‘Dead Heat’ Boat Race of 1877 in progress, the only race in the event’s long history in which such a verdict has been given. Whether Robinson was actually present on race day or not, I do not know.

16 November 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch muses on past and present.

For some reason, the 1877 Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race has been much on my mind lately. Soon after the 34th Battle of the Blues finished, one side decided that it would not accept the result and spread stories supporting ‘an alternative truth’. Why this suddenly seems pertinent is a mystery. Sadly, 143 years on, the lies surrounding 1877 survive and prosper while finding something nearer to the truth takes considerable effort.

Below is a short piece that I produced for the 2014 Boat Race Programme. I was restricted to 700 words and I wrote it for a more general audience than HTBS readers, but, for those who wish to know more, there is a 30-minute film on YouTube that I made on the 1877 race that can be viewed below.

Text from the 2014 Boat Race Programme:

1877: Oxford Won, Cambridge Too.
Tim Koch of the rowing history blog, ‘Hear The Boat Sing’, argues that the popular view of the ‘dead heat’ race of 1877 is a continuing injustice to the finish judge, Honest John Phelps.

Charles Robinson’s impression of the finish of the 1877 race.

In 2003, a thrilling Boat Race resulted in a win for Oxford by just one foot. During the post-race television analysis it was confidently stated that this was the closest of all the 149 races to that time as the ‘dead heat’ of 1877 was, in reality, a six-foot victory for the Dark Blues. The viewing millions were told that this travesty occurred because ‘the finish judge had been in the pub’.

That apparently inebriated official was a waterman, ‘Honest’ John Phelps, a descendant of whom is (the 2014) Umpire, Richard Phelps. Through the years, many other seemingly reliable sources have repeated and embellished different versions of this tale, usually adding that John was ‘asleep under a bush’ at the finish, only awakening to drunkenly slur ‘Dead heat…’ while adding under his breath, ‘…to Oxford by six feet’. Tellingly, different sources have Phelps giving almost any distance between four feet and ten yards.

“The Times” report of 26 March 1877, two days after the race, did not include any of the ridiculous stories that soon grew up regarding the finish of the 34th Boat Race.

‘Honest John’ became a music hall joke (‘Oxford won, Cambridge too!’) and ‘1877’ cast a long shadow over a proud Putney family that had served rowing well for generations. The tragedy is that the popular stories concerning John’s conduct were simply not true and, in the words of the Boat Race Official Centenary History, ‘….no good grounds have been shown for doubting the rightness of John Phelps’s decision’. Maurice Phelps, the family historian, adds that ‘…the (dead heat) decision was not only brave but almost stoic’.

None of the lurid tales about Phelps seem to appear in contemporary accounts, they ‘emerge’ at some later point. According to rowing historian Chris Dodd, it was only after the Blues had returned to Oxford, that they and the town ‘…. daily became more imbued with the idea that (they) had won’.

While no one suggests that there was a formal conspiracy, the idea that a working-class professional could not be relied upon came at a very convenient time for those who were busy formalising rules to make amateur rowing the sole preserve of gentlemen and to rid it of ‘mechanics, artisans and labourers’.

The umpire’s boat and the press boat, an artist’s impression from the 1872 race.

Some sections of the press had made fools of themselves by prematurely declaring that Oxford had won. Reporters were not on the finish line but on a steamer behind the crews, an impossible position from which to judge a close race. Perhaps to save face, they produced stories that proved that they were not wrong, it was the finish judge that was incompetent or drunk or blind or not at his post. An ordinary working man had little chance to refute these accusations.

Investigation into John’s character shows that he was not a stereotypical coarse and roguish waterman and that the epithet ‘Honest’ was not an ironic one. According to Maurice Phelps, even in old age his articulate and physically fit ancestor ‘had a sound reputation in Thames rowing circles’. Further, he ‘collected works of art, commented on social conditions and … condemned animal cruelty’. Moreover, he did not smoke and drank only beer – but never at 8.50 in the morning, the time that the race finished.

‘John Phelps, Putney Waterman’. An etching of 1883 by Charles William Sherborn. National Portrait Gallery D16707.

Amazingly, finish posts were not thought of as necessary because, in the 33 races that had taken place since 1829, the closest verdict had been half-a-length. Phelps later told the umpire that the boats were essentially level with each one going slightly ahead – or falling slightly back – depending on their place in the stroke cycle. Without exactly aligned markers, it could not be judged whose boat surged ahead at the critical second to win. Thus, ‘a dead heat’ was the only legitimate verdict that could have been given.

Another view of the 1877 finish.

Phelps did not take the easy and popular option of declaring for Oxford, the favourites, and for this he paid a high price. While it is more amusing to tell the ‘drunk under a bush’ story than to tell the truth, after (143) years it is time that Honest John Phelps received due recognition for his fair and courageous verdict.

Correction: I accidentally added my own ‘fake news’ to the commentary in the above video. The 2003 Finish Judge, Ben Kent, rowed for Isis and is not ‘an Old Blue’.

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